Science by the Light of the Moon

NASA’s LCROSS mission will confirm the presence or absence of water ice in a permanently shadowed crater at the moon’s south pole.
Credit: NASA Ames

In 2004, NASA announced their intentions to reinvigorate lunar science research in the United States by returning human explorers to the moon. Since the President’s Vision for Space Exploration was released, space agencies from around the world have established new programs and research initiatives for lunar exploration. NASA has begun developing the infrastructure and equipment needed for large-scale human settlement of the moon, including the new Ares launcher and Orion crew vehicle, which will carry a new generation of astronauts to the lunar surface.

This new lunar exploration initiative has led to the creation of the NASA Lunar Science Institute (NLSI), which held its first international conference in July at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. The NASA Lunar Science Conference was the first in a series of meetings that will bring together scientists, students and professionals to discuss the latest developments in lunar science.

Plans to return to the moon with robotic and human explorers will "begin the next step in the settlement of the solar system," according to Pete Worden, Center Director at NASA Ames. Worden welcomed conference attendees and discussed why such a gathering of lunar scientists was necessary at an early stage in planning missions to the moon. "Unlike the last time we went to the moon, everybody’s going to the moon now," Worden noted as he discussed the importance of developing international cooperation in lunar exploration. Indeed, new moon missions will be dramatically different than those of the Apollo era because the goals are different this time around. We’re not simply in a race to see who can get there first, and we’re not planning on a short visit. "One of the key points," according to Dr. Worden, "is that we are moving out permanently."

LRO will use its six instruments collecting detailed information about the lunar environment from a low polar orbit.
Credit: NASA

The first sessions of the conference were devoted to NLSI and the role it will play in future lunar exploration. The structure of NLSI is based on the successful NASA Astrobiology Institute, which has served to promote and organize astrobiology research around the globe. NLSI also will have an international aspect by developing partnerships with international organizations. "The lunar science community has been wanting this for a long time, 40 years in fact," commented Barbara Cohen of the University of New Mexico. "The effort needs a big component of international cooperation."

Topics at the conference covered a range of current scientific research as well as mission opportunities for lunar science in the near future. The moon is of direct interest to astrobiologists, because studying the history and evolution of the moon can yield a great deal of information about the development of the solar system and Earth. The moon will also serve as a location for conducting important experiments in life sciences.

"When we talk about lunar sciences, we are not limiting that to geologists, geochemists and geophysicists," commented Dave Morrison, Interim Director for the NLSI. "We’re planning on using the moon as a lab and observatory base, as well as studying it as a celestial object."

Greg Schmidt, Deputy Director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute, addresses attendees of the NLSC.
Credit: Aaron Gronstal

Barbara Cohen noted, "The moon is a terrestrial planet despite what the IAU may say about terrestrial planets. The moon is also a differentiated planet, meaning it has a core." Studying the geology of the moon can tell us a great deal about how terrestrial planets form and evolve over time.

The moon will serve as a location from which to expand human exploration of the solar system to more distant locations, such as Mars. Lunar settlements will teach us about the effects of long-duration exploration on humans and other living organisms. Technologies developed to keep astronauts healthy and safe on the lunar surface will be vital in developing future missions to Mars. On Earth, there is no ideal way to study what happens to people exposed to lunar conditions, such as reduced gravity, over long time periods, and this means that we won’t really be able to study the effects of long duration space exploration until humans travel beyond our planet. "A good reason to go to the moon," according to Pascal Lee of the Mars Institute, "is that there’s nothing like it on Earth."

Future missions focused both on exploration and science were a showcase of the conference. Michael Wargo, of the NASA Exploration System Mission Directorate (ESMD), presented results of the Optimizing Science and Exploration Working Group (OSEWG). Enabling technologies for human exploration are well under way at NASA, with testing of rovers, vehicles and even lunar cranes in moon-analog locations like Moses Lake, Washington. In 2007, 161 proposals were submitted to NASA for joint science and exploration experiments. At the NLSI, 60 notices of interest have already been received for the Cooperative Agreement Notice (CAN) issued by the new institute. "The community is responding from both science and exploration perspectives," Wargo enthused. These joint projects will be essential in maintaining the momentum needed to successfully return to the moon.

Michael J. Wargo presents results of the Optimizing Science and Exploration Working Group (OSEWG).
Credit: Aaron Gronstal

Missions currently in development were also highlighted. Vassilis Angelopoulos, principle investigator for the THEMIS mission, discussed how components from THEMIS could be used for lunar science. THEMIS is a fleet of five satellites that orbit Earth to study the auroras. Two of the outer THEMIS satellites might soon be used to explore the moon once the THEMIS mission is complete. The ARTEMIS mission, currently in review, would take two outer THEMIS probes and move them into lunar orbits. From there, the probes would collect data on the solar wind and lunar conditions. If approved, ARTEMIS would begin measuring the lunar environment in 2010.

NASA’s upcoming Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) were also discussed. The missions will be used to map safe landing sites, locate potential resources like water ice at the poles and to identify potential hazards that the lunar environment may pose for human explorers. LCROSS in particular will determine whether or not hydrogen signals detected by the Lunar Prospector mission in the late 1990s are from water ice.

"LCROSS will provide the most unambiguous measurements of the hydrogen signal at the moon’s poles," according to Anthony Colaprete, the mission’s Principal Investigator and payload manager.

LRO and LCROSS are currently scheduled to launch together on February 27, 2009, from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Representatives from the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) presented findings from the Kaguya (SELENE) mission. SELENE, a satellite currently orbiting the moon, has returned detailed information about the moon’s mineralogical and elemental composition, the magnetic field, gravity and other aspects of the lunar environment. Data from SELENE has been used to construct fantastic 3D images and videos that allow easy viewing of the moon’s topography.

SELENE is the largest lunar mission undertaken since Apollo, and recently returned images of the ‘halo’ area around the Apollo 15 landing site. Manabu Kato, science manager of the SELENE mission, laughed that this result "shows the Apollo landing was real."

Enabling technologies for human lunar exploration are already in development at NASA.
Credit: NASA

Attendees discussed the needs and motivations behind both robotic and human lunar exploration. "Why do we explore?" questioned Paul Spudis, Senior Staff Scientist with the Lunar and Planetary Institute. "Exploration gives us a survival edge. It allows us to envision answers to questions that you may otherwise not have found out, and it improves our intellectual capital."

"Humans have capabilities that machines don’t have and aren’t likely to have in the future," Spudis commented. Because of this, humans will play an essential role in maintaining future lunar exploration initiatives and will provide opportunities for unique scientific results.

"We can make the moon a laboratory. We can learn to survive safely on the moon," according to Larry Young of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He discussed the importance of studying how humans adjust to living on the moon. A number of experiments on human adaptation to the space environment can be performed on the International Space Station (ISS), but there are lessons that only the moon can teach us. The moon has a unique environment due to the amount of radiation and dust. More importantly, the moon’s partial gravity could have much different effects on human health than the microgravity experienced on the ISS. Providing humans with a safe settlement on the moon will yield new technologies needed for the exploration of Mars.

"We are all interested in what will happen when we put people on Mars," Young noted. "Let us please take advantage of the opportunity to study life on the lunar surface."

Even though humans haven’t set foot on the moon since the 1970s, the lunar materials returned to Earth by the Apollo missions continue to return scientific results.

"Apollo showed that samples from the moon are a heritage that continues to pay off," said Carlé Pieters, Vice Chair of the Space Studies Board at the National Research Council.

Harrison Schmitt investigating the unique geology of the lunar surface during Apollo 17, the last manned mission to the moon.

Future human missions will be designed to provide even more access to lunar materials for scientists, both for in situ studies on the moon and for laboratory studies on Earth. Human lunar exploration also opens up a new type of "applied science", according to Paul Spudis. Answering the question ‘can humans not only survive, but thrive off planet Earth?’ could possibly change the history of the human race.

"The moon is hot or cool depending on what your generation is," Dave Morrison mused. The purpose behind the NASA Lunar Science Conference and NLSI itself is to "catalyze a new renaissance in lunar science."

NASA’s first Lunar Science Conference displayed the huge interest and momentum behind new exploration efforts to the moon. With an attendance "in excess of 500 people," according to Greg Schmidt, Deputy Director of NLSI, the event showcased the variety of novel research that has already benefited from lunar programs around the world. "There has been an enormous amount of progress in getting our program together in the last five months alone," Schmidt noted.

With the creation of the NLSI and the success of the first NASA Lunar Science Conference, interest in moon research is now waxing rather than waning. After years of darkness, the future for lunar exploration now is as bright as the full moon.

Related Web Sites

Exploring the Moon with GPS
Splitting Cargo and Crew
The Bigger Picture
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Revisiting the Moon
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